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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rebels Unleash Assault on Grozny

GROZNY -- Chechen rebels launched their biggest offensive in months Tuesday, seizing several key points in the center of Grozny while Russian forces backed by jets and helicopter gunships tried to repulse them.

The attack came amid the collapse of a May peace agreement and a continuing Russian offensive in the southern mountains. It also came just days before President Boris Yeltsin's inauguration for a second term next Friday in Moscow.

Hundreds of heavily armed rebel fighters attacked Grozny, the Chechen capital, from several directions at dawn. The heaviest fighting was around the railroad station, government buildings, a bank and police stations, and the rebels took control of several main roads, Russian military officials said.

Fighting also was reported in Argun, 15 kilometers east of Grozny, and in Chechnya's second largest city, Gudermes, 30 kilometers east of Grozny.

Rebel forces were backed by several tanks and armored personnel carriers in Grozny. Snipers kept main streets under constant fire, and dark smoke rose from the southwestern factory district, possibly from an oil facility. and more than 50 wounded, General Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the North Caucasus military district, told Interfax.

The Chechen Interior Ministry said that 13 pro-Moscow Chechen policemen had also been killed and 45 wounded. Many of the rebel attacks were against Moscow-backed Chechen government facilities.

There was no way to determine rebel casualties. The separatists said two died; however, the Russians reported much heavier rebel losses.

News reports said dozens of civilians were also injured.

The rebels said the attack was led by their most prominent field commander, Shamil Basayev, Russian news reports said.

In Grozny, after a midday lull in the fighting, reports said heavier shooting resumed in the evening from the ground and helicopters. Kvashnin said Russian forces had the situation largely under control. The separatist attack was reminiscent of one in March, which targeted similar facilities and left scores dead. It took Russian troops several days to reclaim control of the city.

Such attacks on Grozny, the heart of Russia's military and political presence in Chechnya, are demoralizing for Russian troops fighting an unpopular war.

Yeltsin, who won re-election July 3, promised during his campaign that he would end the war, and arranged a peace agreement in late May with rebel leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. Subsequent talks led to another agreement in June.

But the pacts' provisions for a cease-fire, troop withdrawal and rebel disarmament have remained just words, and efforts to renew talks have failed. Both sides accuse each other of widespread cease-fire violations, and Russian planes have been carrying out air strikes for weeks on suspected rebel strongholds in Chechnya's mountainous south.

More than 30,000 people, mostly civilians, have died in the 20 months since Kremlin troops rolled into Chechnya, a mainly Islamic republic in the Caucasus Mountains, to put down its bid for independence.

Top Russian negotiators arrived in Chechnya last week to discuss ways to end the hostilities, but so far have failed to contact rebel leaders.

One Russian negotiator, Sergei Stepashin, accused Yandarbiyev of ordering Tuesday's raid and said the Russians should now refuse to meet with him.

But Ahmed Zakayev, a Chechen rebel representative to peace talks, said the attack was organized by extremists who oppose a peaceful settlement. He said peace efforts would continue.

The international mediator who has worked to restart talks, Tim Guldimann of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, condemned the rebel attack.

"These actions and their consequences only increase the scale of the conflict and create a serious threat for the peace process in Chechnya,'' he was quoted as saying in Grozny.

Yeltsin discussed Chechnya on Tuesday with his prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, and they agreed there must be "adequate retaliation to effectively neutralize'' the rebel attack, Yeltsin's office said. The president also talked about Chechnya with his national security chief, Alexander Lebed.